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Who are the Kaweskar? An Interview - Part 1

When we asked renowned Chilean ethno-linguist Oscar Aguilera Faúndez for his unique insight into the lives of Chilean Patagonia’s indigenous Kaweskar people to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Week, we were expecting to find out some basic facts about their lifestyle and customs, their language and their legacy. But little did we imagine the fascinating tale that we would hear of political strife, arrest, friendship, lost history and personal involvement. As it turns out, the story of studying and documenting the Kaweskar culture is almost as intriguing as the culture itself. So much so, in fact, that we decided to publish our interview in two parts to do it justice. Here’s part one!


Can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in the Kaweskar and why you chose to study them?
I studied at a time when going to university was still free, so I was able to study three majors at once: Classical Languages, German Language and Literature, and Linguistics. When I was a student, an assistant in the Spanish Department ran a Russian language course that I attended. He was called Hugo Obregón, but the classes ended because he went to what was then the Soviet Union to do a doctorate. When he returned with a doctorate specialising in Phonetics and Phonology he proposed that we work together on an indigenous language since I was a specialist in Morphology and Syntax. We began with the Mapuche but we never managed to finish our research.

I had a colleague in Classical Languages whose brother was an anthropologist and archaeologist, who had been in Puerto Eden - home of the last Kaweskar people - in 1959 and had made a recording on magnetic tape of a previously undocumented language. That’s how I became interested in the Kaweskar, and together with Hugo Obregón I worked on a project at the University of Chile to get hold of the anthropologist’s tape. We transcribed it, learned the vocabulary and set off for Puerto Eden in the winter of 1975.

Describing an undocumented language in the process of extinction is a fascinating task, especially for me, since I had specialised in ethno-linguistics and my knowledge of working in the linguistic field was very fresh in my mind when the opportunity to do fieldwork came up. Hugo Obregón had some issues with the photographer that accompanied with us on the expedition and decided to return to Santiago while I stayed out in the field to finish the work.

The Kaweskar, who had always been described to me as remnants of the Last Stone Age, on a lower cultural level, were nothing like that. They were just like any other people from a small fishing village, they dressed the same as people from the Chiloé Archipelago and they were very good, friendly people who were always willing to help me. I did what all of the linguistics field manuals tell you not to do: “Don’t get involved. Ask questions, record the answers and get out”. I became interested in the lives of these people who offered me a friendship that has lasted to the present day.

When I returned from Puerto Eden I found that Hugo Obregón had become just one of many teachers from the University of Chile who had been arrested and was detained at the Tres Alamos camp for political prisoners, because he had studied in the Soviet Union. Once he was set free he went to Venezuela and continued to study a number of indigenous languages there. He died a few years ago and today there’s a High School named after him.

But getting back to the story, since my research partner had gone, I had to go on alone. And the rest is history, as they say. Since I didn’t just focus exclusively on language, but rather on all aspects of their culture, I was able to delve deeply into their culture. Nevertheless, even though one can describe the essential elements of a language (in the field of linguistics this is known as the “Trinity”: writing the grammar, compiling a dictionary and collecting texts i.e. accounts, life stories etc.) you never really finish researching a language, there are always new aspects to discover. Otherwise we’d still be using Nabrija’s 1492 guide to Spanish grammar. Spanish, English etc. are still being researched, as are languages that are no longer spoken like classical Greek and Latin.

Who are the Kaweskar?
The Kaweskar are the ancient inhabitants of western Patagonia, an area that includes the Gulf of Penas in the north and both banks of the Magellan Strait to the south. In the Kawesqar language the territory is known as wæs and is divided into two sections that go from east to west: Jáutok, which includes inland channels and the land, to the east, and Málte, which includes coastal channels and the coast facing out into the Pacific Ocean.
Within this enormous territory, the Kaweskar make various divisions: The Kaweskar of the north, approximately from the Gulf of Penas to the Adalberto Channel were called Sǽlam; to the immediate south, from the Adalberto Channel to the Nelson Strait were the Kčewíte; in the area around Ultima Esperanza were the Kelǽlkčes; and finally in the area of the Skyring and Otway Sounds and the Magellan Strait were the Tawókser.

There was no difference in the lifestyle of these different groups, although there was a difference in dialects (a dialect is a regional variant of a language; for example the Spanish spoken in Chiloé is one of the five varieties of Spanish in Chile). The difference in the Kaweskar dialects is between north and south, but only in terms of vocabulary, as is the case with Spanish in Chile. So in the far south people say calentador (water-heater) while those in Central Chile call the same thing an estufa. In Kaweskar, in the north, a mussel is called a akčáwe, while in the south it’s known as a qápok.

The Kaweskar were hunter-gatherer nomads. They’ve been in the region for at least 6,000 years, according to the findings of archaeologists.

Do we know where they came from?
All of the ancient peoples of the American continent occupied it in various waves from thousands of years ago, via a natural bridge between Asia and America, in the extreme north, across what is now the Bering Strait. So the ancestors of the current indigenous peoples came from Asia. This has been confirmed via genetic studies.

There are two theories relating to the chronology of how the land was occupied: the so-called short chronology, which says that the first wave of American occupation happened 15,000 or 17,000 years ago, followed by successive waves of immigrants. The other theory, the long chronology theory, states that the first immigrants go back to 21,000 to 40,000 years ago, with a later wave of immigration.

The presence of the Kaweskar in the area of the channels is also backed up by the large number of Kaweskar place names. Throughout the region there are no islands, islets, fjords, channels, rivers, hills that don’t have a name, no matter how small. Even a tiny stream hurrying towards the sea has a special meaning for this group, which is why they gave it a name.

We know that the Kaweskars were nomads that travelled and lived in canoes, but didn’t they also live in dome-shaped huts?
Their temporary dwellings were called at. To call these dwellings “huts” is incorrect, since this is a western vision that uses western dwellings as a reference and therefore huts are seen as “poor” and “squalid" etc. By contrast, the at is perfectly adapted for the region and makes use of the available materials. It’s also portable, since the Kaweskar never settled in one place for any great length of time, their economy didn’t allow for that, it was a subsistence economy.

They never formed stable groups for living together or gathered together in large numbers on their lands, they were small groups of hunters, generally tied together by family, friendship or convenience. They organised themselves in order to hunt both marine and land mammals (sea lions, otters, deer and coypu) and birds. With regards to gathering food, that primarily involved collecting molluscs like mussels and limpets. Nor were their groups permanent, their make-up could vary depending on the relationships between individuals. A group might split up due to arguments or simply because on some occasions they associated with some people and at other times with others.

The at were set up at temporary sites. The camp was where the Kaweskar carried out their daily lives and their social organisation is reflected in that. The camp was always a place for passing through, but the duration of a stay could vary. They might stay just one night, or for longer if it was hunting season or a time for collecting eggs, when they might have had a base camp and another temporary camp if the hunting zone was far away. The camp might be formed by a variable number of dwellings depending on the number of people in the group. Generally, related family members might share one large at or various smaller at.

The at is shaped like a dome and is made from canes staked into the ground and tied together with climbing plants or rushes, which were then covered with branches, animal skins and grass, leaving a hole on top for smoke to escape. The idea was to provide shelter and a dry place to rest from the region’s endless rain. In the middle of the at was a fire, both to provide heat and for cooking. The at’s floor was covered in ferns to keep out the damp and also to act as a mattress, in addition to the animal skins that the Kaweskar also used. The at were always set up higher up than the beach. It was actually taboo to light a fire on the beach and at the same time, placing the at further back avoided the risk of being flooded by the tide.

Work in the camp was carried out by all members of the family group or by the individuals that made up a hunting team. Jobs included searching for water, fetching firewood, tending to the fire, keeping an eye on the canoes etc. At the same time there were also intellectual activities like storytelling. When a hunting party had set out, children were often sent to look out for their return, in order to have fresh water and a fire ready to cook the food when they arrived.

Work within the camp was different for men and women. The women were in charge of taking care of the children, gathering shellfish for the group, and in some cases if they weren’t busy, cooking the food, since it was customary for each each individual to cook what they had brought. It was the man's responsibility to chop firewood and to hunt.
The area of Patagonia where the Kaweskar lived is notorious for its changeable weather, the harsh cold and the strong winds. How did they cope with those conditions?
Human beings have the ability to adapt to the environment in which they live; it’s been scientifically proven that the human body performs differently depending on the environmental conditions, whether they be cold or very hot. In 1959 a US expedition financed by NASA carried out a series of tests on the Kaweskar to find out more about their resistance to the cold. NASA was interested in finding out how astronauts could survive if they landed (or crashed!) in frozen areas of a planet. They discovered that the Kaweskar have a great capacity to resist the cold.
Is it possible to see any influence of the Kaweskar culture in modern Chile?
No, there are no influences of Kaweskar culture in Chile. Much of Chile’s ancient culture is unknown and the information that does exist is inaccurate. It’s only in the last couple of years that more has come to be known about this culture. They have always stayed in a very distant region which is not well-known, even today. Almost none of the residents of the Magallanes Region (the most southerly region in Chile) have ever been into the channels.
Which of Chile’s museums would you recommend for visitors who want to learn more about the Kaweskar?
The Museo Salesiano in Punta Arenas.

Can’t get enough of reading about Chilean Patagonia’s indigenous Kaweskar people? Then read part two of our interview with Oscar Aguilera Faúndez, published on the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples!